TWO hundred and fifty-nine people died in the Baldia garment factory fire tragedy in Karachi on Sept 11, 2012.
Before this, the highest number of people killed in a factory fire was 146 in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist garment factory in New York and 187 in the 1993 doll factory fire in Thailand. The factory fire death record remains firmly in Pakistan’s hands.
The prosecution, under the Sindh government, has accused the owners/management of M/s Ali Enterprises running the Baldia factory of deliberate gross criminal negligence, charging them with murder under Section 302 of the Pakistan Penal Code. Contrary to Pakistani practice, this was a surprisingly correct legal approach in this case.
But then, in a speech to the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) on Dec 29, the prime minister is reported to have said: “Authorities should reinvestigate the case and provide justice to the employers of Ali Enterprises if a wrong case has been registered against the factory owners under Section 302 [murder]”. And the KCCI president provided the icing on the cake by describing the tragic fire as merely “an accident”.
The importance of the above statements lies in the tragic fact that there is no understanding about the historical significance of the Baldia factory fire and its implication on the key question as to whether the poor can ever get justice in Pakistan. It has three significant features.
Firstly, it is a factory fire with the biggest number of deaths anywhere.
Secondly, providing a safe workplace for the working class is not just a key labour right; it is a basic human right. There can be no future for labour rights in Pakistan if the basic right to life by providing a safe workplace cannot be guaranteed. In other words, if the working class is going to be burnt alive then they can hardly benefit from better wages.
Thirdly, reactions to such factory fires by societies have transformed the latter into more humane societies. For example, with 146 killed in the 1911 Triangle factory fire, New York state and society were traumatised and, resultantly, put in place the most comprehensive workplace safety laws in the US.
It is a mistaken assumption that it was the fire at the Baldia factory which killed so many people. Let me give you the context to the gross criminal negligence.
With over 1,500 workers, M/s Ali Enterprises Baldia factory was not even registered with the Sindh Labour Department. The factory building was in violation of the building plan. Since surprise inspections have been discontinued by the government, there were no such inspections by the labour inspector, electric inspector and the site-limited administration of the Baldia factory.
Therefore, it was never checked whether the factory had any fire and safety mechanisms and if most of the exit doors had permanently been locked by the management on the pretext of alleged ‘chori’ or ‘kam chori’ by the workers.
It is this locking of most of the exit doors and lack of fire and safety mechanism at the factory, which actually killed such a large number of persons (similar was the case in the New York, Thailand fires).
Perhaps not great or even satisfactory but there has been some positive response by the Pakistani state and society to the Baldia fire.
A better than usual investigation has been conducted by a seven-member team of the Sindh Police; on the petitions of NGOs, the Sindh High Court, especially Justice Maqbool Baqar, has passed orders regarding the expeditious identification of unidentified bodies, details of receipt of compensation, inspection of other factories in Karachi regarding safety and fire precautions, registration of factories by the labour department.
Then, on the basis of arguments of prosecution lawyers and private counsels for NGOs, bail of the owners was rejected by a competent and brave Justice Abdullah Channa, additional sessions judge, Karachi; and despite the resistance of the prosecution, a judicial magistrate in Karachi has included government officials as accused persons in the criminal case.
Some compensation has been delivered to the victim’s family members and a lot more is in the pipeline; there has been massive media coverage of this issue; singer Jawad Ahmad has written a song and artists at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture are organising an art exhibition on this issue.
Thus, the prime minister’s statement regarding justice for the Baldia factory owners seems tragic. What about justice for the Baldia victims?
Is the prime minister aware that 26 bodies are still to be identified despite the passage of four months? Is he aware that most of the compensation is yet to be delivered? Does he know that deliberate gross criminal negligence (despite the absence of intention) can still be classified as murder under Sections 300 & 302, Pakistan Penal Code?
Is the prime minister aware that he cannot interfere in a criminal investigation and prosecution, which is also a violation of provincial autonomy? Is he aware that there are allegations that the owners induced and intimidated witnesses?
Is the capitalist class so powerful that the Pakistani state cannot enforce its fire and safety laws against it and prosecute it for its violation? No wonder, this bankrupt state cannot collect taxes from this class.
Moreover, what do the Karachi business leaders want to achieve by defending such gross criminally negligent practices of a fellow industrialist. Do they want to travel back to the capitalist-labour relations of the early 20th century and maybe face restrictions from the international community for such anti-labour practices?
History teaches us that tragedies provide opportunities to nations to redeem and reinvent themselves. A rigorously humane response to the martyrdom of the Baldia victims contains within it the potential to rebuild relations between the poor and rich and between business/capitalist and labour/employee in Pakistan.
But powerful and rich Pakistanis should realise that if this opportunity is lost, such mass deaths will have violent consequences for all of us.
The writer is counsel for the NGOs pursuing the Baldia factory fire case.